Mindhunter review: 'We’re a long way from Hannibal Lecter suavely monologuing about fava beans and Chianti'
Serial killers have never been out of fashion, but from The Fall to Hannibal via season one of True Detective and bonkers BBC thriller Rellik, television has lately done an especially roaring trade in manic murderers. Every modern example of the genre carries in its bloodstream the DNA of Se7en and Zodiac, David Fincher’s poised and masterful contributions to the canon.
Adapted from the writings of a pioneering FBI serial killer profiler, Mindhunter, Fincher’s new Netflix collaboration would, it was generally assumed, see the director going back to the bloody well a third time. He is, after all, the laureate of the gruesome cutaway, a peerless conjurer of claustrophobic dread.
But Mindhunter — Fincher is executive producer and directed four episodes — quickly reveals itself to be something else entirely. The 10-part first season is a trenchant argument against the cult of the serial killer that works hard at dispelling the mystique around several notorious real-life murderers.
It is based on the work of FBI agent John E Douglas, whose encounters through the 70s and 80s with Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Ed Gein and others inspired Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.
Many of the murderers featured in the series, which counts movie star Charlize Theron as producer, are real. Fincher has stated, more or less, that he wants to de-glamorise these men and unmask them as the deranged and dangerous individuals they truly were. An appointment with shoe-fetishising Oregon killer Jerry Brudos, for instance, climaxes with the overweight, badly-shaven prisoner doing something depraved to a stiletto heel. We’re a long way from Hannibal Lecter suavely monologuing about fava beans and Chianti.
The story is told through the initially wide-eyes of junior FBI agent Holden Ford (a stand-in for Douglas). He is portrayed with boy-scout gusto by Jonathan Groff, best known for heel-kicking turns in Glee and Frozen (he voiced reindeer-loving ice-vendor Kristoff).
With Richard Nixon not long departed and Vietnam still casting a chill, as the action gets underway in 1977, his chipper outlook is presented as jarringly out of place. Society is splintering, fuelling (it is implied) an epidemic of ‘sequential killers’ (Ford and his team later refine the term to ‘serial killers’).
A botched hostage negotiation confirms to Ford that FBI criminal profiling is hopelessly antiquated. So he ropes gruff senior colleague Bill Tench — an exquisitely flinty Holt McCallany — into his new project of interviewing incarcerated killers.
The goal is to construct a picture of how and why these disturbed individuals are driven to murder — a break with the established practice of putting them behind bars and throwing away the key. Their double act becomes an uneasy triptych with the arrival of Boston psychologist Wendy Carr (Fringe’s Anna Torv).
Her insistence on sticking to procedure quickly clashes with Ford and Tench’s improvisational approach — a tension that ultimately spirals out of control.
Their first subject is “co-ed” killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), a hulking nerd who targeted female students before building up to decapitating his mother, defiling her head and ripping out her vocal chords, so that she would finally cease her nagging. With his affably dorky manner and glittering intelligence — he describes his crimes as his “oeuvre” — Kemper presents himself as an eager collaborator. Until a devastating reversal in the final episode, Ford is seduced into thinking of him almost as a friend.
Alongside conversations with real-life monsters — rapist-killer Monte Rissell and Oregon mass-murderer Richard Speck join Kemper and Brudos in the rogue’s gallery — Ford and Tench are called on by local police to solve gruesome (fictional) crimes. These include a 12-year-old girl butchered in the woods; a fiancé mutilated and left to rot on a rubbish tip, and a pair of old ladies struck down with their dogs.
Ford’s increasing faith in his methodology is meanwhile tested when he is asked to intervene in the case of a local school principal who sees nothing harmful in tickling students’ feet.
Ford and Tench are a compelling odd couple, their interview sequences with the killers tense and gripping. Less successful are attempts to flesh out their personal lives. The strait-laced Ford’s relationship with annoying hippy girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) never convinces. More believable are Tench and wife Nancy’s struggles with an uncommunicative adopted son. But their storyline doesn’t get enough screen time to feel like anything beyond elaborate padding.
A twisting, turning finale sees the behavioural science unit’s accomplishments thrown into jeopardy. But it’s obvious that Ford and Tench’s journey through the lurid world of true crime is far from over, with the devotion of several pre-credit scenes to notorious ‘bind, torture, kill’ murderer Dennis Rader — an inspiration for Paul Spector in The Fall — clearly setting up a future antagonist. As with the other killers, his crimes are alluded to instead of gruesomely recreated on screen. Rather than the expected fountains of gore, Fincher has given us something spare, thoughtful and elegant — and all the more haunting for it.